Art opens up community imagination

Art opens up community imagination
Peace Building and the Arts: An Imagine Belfast Festival discussion
by Allan Leonard for Northern Ireland Foundation
11 March 2015

As part of the Imagine Belfast Festival, the Northern Ireland Foundation and Forum for Cities in Transition hosted a discussion event, “Peace Building and the Arts”, which explored how art has progressed peace in Northern Ireland.

The invited practitioners were Glenda Davies (Sandy Row Community Forum), Ruth Graham (Golden Thread Gallery), and Paula McFetridge (Kabosh Theatre). The session was moderated by writer and journalist, Susan McKay.

As Managing Director of the Northern Ireland Foundation, I welcomed the audience of over 60 in the lecture hall of the Ulster Museum. I explained the Foundation’s background and goals: “We work to secure a durable peace in Northern Ireland.”

I also described the Forum for Cities in Transition, an initiative of Professor Padraig O’Malley at the University of Massachusetts Boston, as a network of municipalities with Forum members assisting each other with conflict transformation.

I explained how Forum cities have shared experience of the use of arts in peace building; the topic was discussed during its annual gathering in Derry-Londonderry in 2011.

“Tonight’s event is a continuation of this learning, which will be shared throughout our global network,” I said.

Glenda Davies reviewed all of the work that she has been involved with in the Sandy Row/mid-Donegall Road neighbourhood — community planning, economic regeneration, educational attainment and health inequalities.

She said that culture, art and creativity have always been there in the community, just not in a way seen as positive.

20150120 Sandy Row 01 IMG_0001

The most remarked upon reimaging project has been the replacement of the paramilitary themed “Welcome to Sandy Row” mural at the corner of Linfield Gardens, with a deeper historical reference to the Battle of the Boyne.

This is fitting, as nearby there is a marker for King William’s passing through the area. You discover this as part of the Sandy Row Tours, which Ms Davies also described.

She gave a good argument for the power of art:

“Art provides opportunities for the community to open up imagination. It provides opportunities to tell the Sandy Row story, far and wide; Sandy Row will not realise its potential if it closes itself off to the world,” Ms Davies said.

She concluded with a quotation from the artist Degas, and appropriated it locally: “For Sandy Row, art is to get others to see the potential of Sandy Row. Art will provide a foundation for Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist progress.”

Ruth Graham provided a resume of the work of Golden Thread Gallery, including an imaginative take on the theme of the newcomer, with a rocket “manned by aliens”, hoisted with a crane and released to crash in an interface desert.

The genesis for the project, Draw Down the Walls, came from a discussion on imagining a city without barriers. As Ms Graham explained later, this had less to do with any physical tearing down of walls, and more with addressing emotional barriers.

20150311 Peace Building Arts - Ambulatorio

For example, she spent some time describing the Ambulatorio project, which resulted in artist Oscar Muñoz creating a series of cracked glass tiles of aerial images of Belfast, but all mixed up, requiring participants to walk all over the tiles to find familiar landmarks. The walking caused the glass to crack further, making it evermore difficult.

This installation was placed in an interface area; a new entry gate was created so that multiple communities could access it.

This project demonstrated how art could get people together, to discuss shared problems caused by interfaces. It was accessible whilst open to divergent interpretations.

Ms Graham described other projects, which had a more social-economic focus. She described poverty as the ultimate barrier to progress, with the issue not between the have and have-nots, but between the “have-nots and have yachts”.

Paula McFetridge made her case for how theatre can transform lives.

What she learnt, she explained, was that timing matters. What story is the right time to tell, she asked. Also, it is crucial that telling the story does not make matters worse.

Ms McFetridge demonstrated a smartphone app, Streets of Belfast, which enables the user to take a virtual tour of the Falls and Shankill Road areas. While this will satisfy a curiosity from tourists unable to travel to Northern Ireland, another significant benefit is that it also allows those who live in one of the areas to walk the space that you might feel to unsafe to explore in person.

The app includes video clips of on-site theatre performances, for example in the Shankill Library and Conway Mill. Ms McFetridge described how this allowed her to bring characters together that would not have meet up with each other in real life. For example, in the Milltown Cemetery skit, Winifred Carney, “comrade and secretary” to James Connolly, converses with William Barrett, a Royal Irish Constabulary constable:

In other words, theatre can produce a new lens to look at history and contentious issues.

Next was an explanation of the 20 project, to commemorate the 1994 paramilitary cease-fires. The motivation was to encourage artists to come together to highlight the optimism of the will. Ms McFetridge described this as “an absolute moment of the collective”.

Over 12,500 persons saw the installation at the Victoria Square Mall.

Finally, she described how the play, Those You Pass on the Street, is based on a grain of truth — an RUC widow goes into a Sinn Fein office to discuss anti-social behaviour in her neighbourhood. The rest of the script is fiction. Ms McFetridge said that what happened at the post-play discussions were ten minutes of animated, sometimes heated conversation, followed by a more constructive one focused on how we could create a better future.

This play asks difficult questions. And the context in which the story is told changes over time, making it challenging for her and the performers. But as Ms McFetridge said, “Artists need to be like fish — they need to be able to change quick in the water.”

The moderator, Susan McKay, provided a summary of a “fantastic trio of presentations”: Glenda Davies introduced the community development approach with the need for participation by the community and with imagination; Ruth Graham spoke of provocation and intervention; and Paula McFetridge described the magic of how theatre can transform ways of thinking.

There was a full half hour of discussion with the audience, from the intentionally frivolous (“Ruth, where did you get the aliens for your rocket?”) to the theoretical (“Which comes first, re-imaging or re-imagining?”).

Someone asked about the engagement with elected representatives, and relatedly, the prospects in light of swinging budget cuts to the arts. Indeed, soon enough Northern Ireland will no longer have any Executive department responsible for the arts. One response is to remind politicians of the role that art plays across departments, such as health.

Paula McFetridge’s final comment reminded the audience of the universal issues that get explored in conflict and post-conflict reconciliation work — grief, loss, cultural identity. She argued that we should share our practice internationally, because there are places looking at us who are where we were 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and who want to learn from our experiences.

“There is the power of gathering to experience something that makes you transcend your thoughts before you walked into the room,” she said.

Meanwhile, “We still have a long way to go. Our practice is evolving, which is something we should be very proud of.”

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